Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wonder how it feels to be one of the thirty-one agents who rejected The Sparrow?

Oh, but I shouldn’t be so hard on hapless agents unable to recognize genius or unwilling to take a risk. It took me many years (seventeen from its date of publication, five from when I became aware of it) to pick up Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel. And four days to devour it.

The threaded narrative is split in two by time and space, but follows the story of one man: Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico with preternatural linguistic abilities. In 2022, Emilio and seven other crew members board the Stella Maris to explore the recently-discovered planet Rakhat. In 2059, Emilio returns from the mission alone, physically and psychologically broken. Although nearly forty years have passed on Earth since the doomed crew embarked on their voyage, Emilio—who travelled at light speed—is fresh from the horror. Not even three years have passed in his life since the Stella Maris's departure. The story of what happened to the crew had been relayed by another mission that followed a few years behind the Stella Maris. It is horrific—or we suppose it must be— for Russell raises the tension ante by shifting back to the recent future, keeping her hand on the release valve of the truth as the storylines gradually merge. Whatever happened, Emilio isn’t telling. His hands have been mutilated, he suffers debilitating migraines, and he refuses to defend himself against terrible accusations. The Father General of the Society of Jesus, Vincenzo Guiliani, gives Emilio two months at a retreat outside Naples to heal, then the questioning will begin.

Journey is a core theme of The Sparrow and the characters undertake many. The literal journey from Earth to a distant planet is the heart of the novel’s gripping premise, but the internal journeys make it fascinating and heartbreaking. There are journeys of faith, love, marriage and ageing; journeys that test physical limits and break the spirit. The spiritual journeys resonate and Russell’s masterful plotting enthralls.

I’ve been thinking hard about this in the days since I finished The Sparrow and I struggle to come up with more than a few titles of books that have been as holistic a reading experience, in which my every literary need and desire have been so exquisitely satisfied. I managed White Dog Fell From the Sky, Eleanor Morse; Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell; Atonement, Ian McEwan; Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes; The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco; A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth. An eclectic mix, to be sure, but what they have in common is riveting story, characters who get under your skin, a scope awesome in size-either in research or world-building (or both) yet with deeply personal themes, and gorgeous but accessible prose. Each of these books changed me not just as a reader, but as a person. I add The Sparrow to this estimable collection.

Although I could have appreciated The Sparrow many years ago, I wonder if it would have touched me in the same way. The story caught me at a juncture of my own spiritual journey: the road that led me far from religion has crested a rise and I can see past the morass of dogma to the more orderly pursuit of theology. I am left with an inexplicable sense of beauty and hope and a renewed determination to continue my quest.

After forgoing The Sparrow for so long, why now? Well, that’s an easy one. I was gobsmacked by Mary Doria Russell’s most recent novel, Doc (review linked). If I could be this rapturous about a “western,” I was willing to follow her into science fiction. After The Sparrow, I’d follow her anywhere.

Just a sidebar about genre. I understand it’s in our genetic code to sort and classify. But it’s a damn shame to pigeonhole literary fiction with nugatory genres. How many times have I heard “Oh, I don’t really like westerns” as I’ve waxed enthusiastic about Doc in recent weeks (after moaning and groaning myself before digging into this book club pick)? More’s the pity. Ditto The Sparrow—often categorized as science fiction. I resolve henceforth to ignore simplistic classifications and explore a book based on the quality of its storytelling and prose, rather than knee-jerk a rejection because a novel is set in Dodge City, KS or on Planet Rakhat. End of soapbox. Continuation of reading bliss.

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Book Club Redeemed: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

DocDoc by Mary Doria Russell My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you follow me Goodreads, you’ll know I’ve disliked, vigorously, most of the titles our book club has selected in recent months. My reading philosophy forbids wasting time on books that don’t capture me in their opening chapters, but I’ve had to bend my rules to honor book club commitments. Number Five—a memoir—fared better, but only by a thread. Number Six was my pick. I loved it. I feel sheepish because it was my selection, but after months of insufferable duds, I went after an author I adore.

Enter Lucky Number Seven. Last month one of our club members selected Doc by Mary Doria Russell for our November read. Cue inner cheer and moan. Russell has been on my “must-read” list for eons. Okay, truth. She felt like one of those writers I should read. But the spark hadn’t lit. A book club obligation seemed like a good way to tick the Mary Doria Russell author box. But, God, a WESTERN? Do I have to read a book about Doc Holliday? Seriously? Sigh.

O vos pusillae fide

He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

And from this sentence on, I was spellbound. I have a new writer crush (sorry Jess Walter, you’ve been displaced. Love ya,babe).

Doc is based on a very brave conceit. Russell takes an element of our collective cultural imagination—the sepia-toned Wild West—and gambles that we’ll embrace her rendering of its most iconic figures and places. Or that we'll even care about one more depiction of the Earp boys and world-weary, hack-a-lung Doc Holliday. What Ms. Russell needs to know is that she touched this reader, who had to go out of her way to pick up a novel set in the American west, with some of the most sublime storytelling I’ve read.

John Henry Holliday became a dental surgeon at twenty-one and was stricken with tuberculosis that same year. He boarded a train for the West, in search of drier climes. By twenty-two he was a heavy drinker and gambler. By twenty-six he was a frontier legend with a permanent limp from a gunshot wound and a multi-lingual Hungarian aristocrat-turned-prostitute on his arm. And he hadn’t yet set foot in Dodge City, Kansas.

But follow Mary Doria Russell there, as she takes Doc to his single season of happiness. She will prove to be a cracker-jack guide—nimble, sophic, soulful. Doc is a character study, with its title protagonist the sun around which a host of personalities spin. Russell sinks the reader into the skin of her characters-and there are heaps, as evidenced by The Players section that prefaces the narrative. But it’s Doc as the sun, Kate Harony, his companion, as the moon, and Wyatt Earp as the grounded Earth who make this universe breathtaking and epic.

Russell creates a world that will consume each of your senses until you are wiping the Kansas grit from your skin, gasping at the sweet-sour burn of bourbon, pausing to wonder at the beauty of a prairie sunrise, cringing at the wet iron scent of fresh blood, and hearing the crack of gunshot and drumming of hooves as Texas boys pound into town for a night of cards and whores. The details of time and place are artfully offered without ever being cliché. We know this world—we grew up with these legends—yet Russell brings freshness to the American frontier. It’s not retread. It’s raw and unaffected worldbuilding.

The narrative is a slice of Doc’s life. Outside the brief chapters chronicling his early years and an even shorter Epilogue, Doc takes between April 1878 and April 1879. It’s the year Doc spent in Dodge City, Kansas, endearing himself to Wyatt, Morgan and James Earp, an Austrian priest, an Irish entertainer, a Chinese entrepreneur, not a few prostitutes (though Kate was his only lover) and making enemies with just about everyone else. Russell weaves a subplot into the narrative—the suspicious death of a young faro dealer of black and Indian heritage. The investigation of the boy’s death becomes the linchpin of the story, allowing us to witness the players and politics at work in Dodge City.

This is as fine a work of historical fiction as I any I have read. I’m not well-versed in literature of the American west, but I have taken John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Louise Erdrich and Cormac McCarthy out for a spin. Doc slips easily into the tremendous canon of these writers.

The moment I turned the final pages of the Author’s Note I hopped lickety-split to Mary Doria Russell’s website, where she had announced the same day a sequel to Doc, entitled Epitaph, will be released early 2015: Epitaph update: bad news, good news And she’s committed to writing a novel about Edgar Allen Poe. Oh, we lucky readers!

Doc makes up in spades for the months of dreary book club reads which preceded it.

Mary Doria Russell, you are my huckleberry.

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